Palo Alto Weekly 27th Annual Short Story
Second Place Young Adult
by Valerie Taylor
My drives are the highlights of my day. Driving is simple. Follow the rules, the limits, the signs. I never break a law, toe a line. My room’s a mess and my handwriting is incomprehensible but my driving is total meticulous, rule-book-abiding, every-parent’s-dream perfection. Driving keeps me sane - in control.
I reverse slowly, looking over my right shoulder. Ease down the brake, shift into drive, steady with the gas.
Around age five, I embarked on a complete fascination with cars. “The Car Craze,” as my dad dubbed it. Posters of shiny red Ferraris, Maseratis, and Porches plastered once-empty walls of my small blue room in thick layers, their corners peeling, looking as though they pulled on the very structure of the room. Like it’d collapse.
I studied cars too, diligently. Memorized facts and statistics, prices and history. I’d work a car fact into every conversation with my dad. And he’d smile, his dimples showing through weathered, stubbly cheeks.
Eventually, I grew up and Car Craze stopped being cute. So the posters went down and I stopped studying facts, but my love of driving persisted. I go out too much. The car’s always missing.
Four-way intersection. Make a complete stop. No other cars. Smooth, hand-over-hand turn. The signal eagerly springs back up, ends its tick-tick-tick.
I wonder if my dad remembers me, pre-Car Craze. I certainly remember the shrimpy, brown-haired freckled boy, the five year old. He sits in the sandbox, legs crossed, with girls. He wants to invite girls over for playdates. He wants them at his party. He wants a tea party for his birthday, he declares, tugging on his dad’s sleeves, with princess decorations.
“Did we raise a boy or a girl?” the dad grumbles, in a tone clearly meant to be undetectable by young ears. The mom hushes him. The boy falls silent. Sees the magazine on the nightstand opened to a Toyota advertisement. Asks for a car party.
I like catching a yellow light at just the right time, and I do today. Just enough time to ease into a nice stop, be first in line, a good row behind me, a good row next to me.
Before I had my license, I walked to school every day. It was incredibly routine and incredibly boring. I thought of assignments, of presentations, of nothing. Stared down at my familiar untied black sneakers, the ones falling apart at the seams, black threads left behind on the pavement.
And some days, as I walked into the school parking lot, a car would pass by me, its driver a blonde boy with a too-big grin. He’d sing aloud to his music, shouting almost, make such sharp turns that I’d worry for the battered black jalopy he steered.
He drove recklessly, youthfully. I was fascinated.
I press on the gas a bit more, bringing my speed to the exact limit, feeling the pedal resist, pushing back on me. The roads are jammed; it’s 6 PM in suburbia. Postured trees line the road, their red-orange-green leaves evidence of autumn.
It seemed odd to me how quickly one could fall in love with a stranger.
I soon started noticing the boy around school more - I’d see him in the halls, swear that he smiled at me.
One day I was hopelessly late to school, not even attempting a run to make it on time. I crossed the eerily still lot, every car tucked into its own place, sleeping. The black jalopy announced itself with blaring Top 40 hits, and as I snuck a glance with my peripheral I saw Big Grin rolling down his window.
“You’re late too?”
“I’m gonna skip first period. Wanna listen to music?”
Suddenly self-aware, I joined him in the car. He introduced himself as Jordan, a junior.
We were fast friends - he laughed at my preoccupations, my habits, my fastidious devotion to following rules; I could watch him for hours. He was alive, in a way no one else I knew was.
We first kissed in that car.
He leaned over to my seat. I tilted my head. And it was as if we were continuing, not starting a kiss; it was so natural and easy and pure. Jordan had never asked if I loved him, never hinted that he loved me. We just knew, and we didn’t tell a soul.
I’m almost there. My routine loop is near over. Pass by the dry, grassy hills in a smooth curve, a curve almost too sharp.
Jordan sent me a text that morning: “Love you, I’ll pick you up in a bit.”
He drove the almost too sharp curve, drove recklessly, youthfully, didn’t see the semi truck backing out, didn’t make it past the hills.
I clench the steering wheel tighter as I drive past. Cleared.
My parents didn’t understand why I was so torn apart over the loss of a classmate. So I quickly adjusted, just like I did when my five-year-old behavior was out of line. I only cried in the shower, the water an excuse for the wetness on my cheeks, the sound a mask for sobs. I smiled every day. I said “thank you for dinner” and “school’s going fine.”
We knew each other only half a year when it happened. Autumn. October 29, 12:23 PM. A year ago today.
I’m almost home. I’m weary from revisiting these same, worn paths in my memory, from feeling the same way each time, that same pent-up guilt, the weight of concealment.
Turn, I instruct myself, into the driveway of your two-story yellow home. Pull in straight, line up with the neatly trimmed bushes, stop and park.
Pace to the door in those same black sneakers. Open it to the smell of spaghetti, wave hello to mom, marinara sauce stains on her blouse. Squeak your shoes to your room, the small blue room. Open the middle desk drawer, the one with the paper.
Tell them everything. Explain, raw, wounded, but honest. Finally honest. Choose the pen that he gave you and start.
Dear Mom and Dad:
I loved "On Driving"! The writer has a fresh voice, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to structure a story in an inventive and dramatic way.